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Experts Warn Against Military Aid to Mexico

Alison Raphael

WASHINGTON - A $465-million aid package aimed at countering terrorism and crippling the drug trade in Mexico and Central America was signed into law yesterday by U.S President George W. Bush, but critics warn that the "Merida Initiative," also known as "Plan Mexico," will be ineffective and could result in more human rights abuses.0702 10

More than $116 million is for training and equipping Mexican military and police forces, and will go directly into the pockets of U.S. defense contractors and defense technology firms, charges Americas Policy Program director Laura Carlsen.

More importantly, "Plan Mexico extends into Mexico the Bush administration's failed 'war on terrorism' and 'drug war' models. These are policies that have militarized U.S. foreign policy, wasted taxpayers' money, and caused the United States to lose standing in the world -- notably in Latin America," Carlsen warned after the Senate approved the package Friday.

Mexico has been caught up in an increasingly violent cycle since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on drug traffickers, sending thousands of soldiers to the streets, and the latter pushed back to defend their $23-billion-a-year industry, killing several top police officers as well as civilians.

When the aid package was introduced in the U.S. Congress, it included demands related to accountability and human rights, requiring the Mexican government to certify that law enforcement officials benefiting from the training and equipment are not involved in corruption or rights abuses.

But Calderon's government vowed not to accept the aid if it was tied to such conditions, and Washington backed down, softening the terms of the aid.

Also omitted from the final bill were commitments by Washington to take action to reduce drug demand in the United States, which drives the drug trade throughout Latin America, as well as earlier plans to target some funds for drug-use prevention and helping poor farmers make the transition to legal crops.

"Demand-reduction programs have been shown in studies to be far more effective in reducing illegal drug flows than supply-side measures," Carlsen pointed out in a statement Monday.

Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) joined Americas Policy in critiquing the fundamental structure of the new agreement in a statement Friday.

"The Merida Initiative is important in terms of bilateral cooperation to address drug trafficking and drug-related violence in Mexico, but effectively tackling these problems will require more emphasis on structural reform," said Meyer, adding: "Mexico's civilian institutions, not the military, should be receiving support."

As a result of reports that Calderon's anti-drug offensive was resulting in rape and violation of civilians' human rights, Meyer also stressed that accountability for human rights is a "serious concern" in Mexico and noted that WOLA will be monitoring and reporting on the situation as the Merida Initiative unfolds.

Carlsen too expressed concern at this type of "collateral damage" of the drug war, noting that it is likely to increase with the military-oriented aid provided under the Merida Initiative and calling it "unacceptable."

"In a country where democratic institutions are weak and transition to democracy incipient, aid that strengthens security forces takes Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico relationship in precisely the wrong direction and fails to address root causes," Carlsen concluded.

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